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Born With a Rusty Spoon: Episode 40

...After Willie left, we all moved from the motel to a small house in town. Mama and P.G. set their bed up in the living room. We were now a family of four kids and we shared the two small bedrooms, our mattresses placed directly on the floor. Along with the basics—a kitchen table and chairs, stove and refrigerator—this house had something we'd never enjoyed before: running water....

Well-known artist Bertie Stroup Marah continues her vividly told account of a tough upbringing.

To buy a copy of Bertie's wonderful book please visit

To see some of her pictures click on

About that time Willie, sixteen, started living with Grandpa and Grandma Counts. His relationship with P.G. had not improved since their earlier confrontation in Weed, and he had little tolerance for their drinking.

Things weren't easy for Willie there. Grandpa was disabled from chronic asthma and Grandma did sewing alterations at a nice clothing store. With what Willie could contribute working at odd jobs, and what Murrel earned from playing fiddle in a band, they were able to get by. Most importantly, Willie didn't have to deal with P.G. and his parents' drinking.

After Willie left, we all moved from the motel to a small house in town. Mama and P.G. set their bed up in the living room. We were now a family of four kids and we shared the two small bedrooms, our mattresses placed directly on the floor. Along with the basics—a kitchen table and chairs, stove and refrigerator—this house had something we'd never enjoyed before: running water. Phyllis and Reita, now six and five, would not stop playing with the faucets. Although Jessie and I had to follow them around, at least it made it easier to lure them into the bathtub before bedtime.

Jessie and I looked after Reita and Phyllis at night while my parents worked in the cafe. They didn't have money to go to bars but occasionally drank some after closing. At times I grew weary of caring for my sisters, but I accepted my duties. We had no family life to speak of but did play with the Donaghe kids whose family had moved to Artesia from the mountains, too. Mainly our life consisted of caring for our siblings and waiting for our folks to bring leftovers from the cafe .Our life was one crisis after another that threatened our livelihood and created anxiety for our future. I was worried about what was going to happen to us but I never gave up hope that things would get better.

And there were joyful times: the dances where Murrel played in the band. We were allowed to accompany our folks—and best of all, Willie was usually there too. The dances were held in roller rinks, airport hangers and other big buildings with spacious floors. We would sit around the edge of the dance floor drinking soda pop and watching in awe. When we joined in the dancing we could forget the bleak circumstances of our lives. It was the closest I came to living out my movie fantasy.

Our folks worked long hours in the cafe. The business wasn't doing well, possibly because my folks had no experience in running a restaurant. They also had no funds to buy supplies in bulk. They finally had to give up the cafe business and we were forced to move into a cheaper house. P.G. finally found a small grocery store that would give us a few groceries on credit. When P.G.'s brother-in-law, Glen Gathings, encouraged him to come to northern New Mexico for work, it must have been a welcome invitation for my folks. It was hard for me because we left behind Willie, Murrel, and my grandparents.

I was twelve years old, in the sixth grade, and the school year was not yet over when we moved to Bloomfield. We were not enrolled there to finish that year of school, and I am sure our grades were affected the following year. This did not concern my parents because their main priority was just trying to make a living.

The oil boom had begun in northeastern New Mexico and P.G.'s first job was working on a drilling rig located in Gobernador near the site where the Navajo Dam would later be built. We moved to that isolated area to be near the rig on which P.G. worked. We set up a tent by an earth tank and water well that belonged to the drilling company. The tank was the water supply for their rigs and our source of water as well.

In that tent, our folk's bed sat on a frame with a storage space underneath. The kids bedding, which lay on the floor, was rolled up during the day and tied with rope. A blanket hung in the middle of the tent for privacy. A table and a wood cook stove filled the front of the tent. We had an old rug that covered the earth floor. Just outside in our "front yard" we tied a hammock between two large cedar trees. Competition for that hammock was fierce.

Mama kept the tent neat and the rug swept clean. She cooked beans every other day and supplemented them with potatoes, macaroni and tomatoes, and other canned goods.

The tiredness in her face would disappear when we drove bouncing over rough roads, into Bloomfield to buy groceries and do the laundry.

She also enjoyed our family fishing trips on the San Juan River on P.G.'s days off. Having the money and supplies to do these things eased her almost constant worries. But, as usual, these joyful outings were mired by excessive drinking. Once we went fishing with P.G.'s brother-in-law, Glen, and we rode in the back of the pickup while the adults sat up front. On the return trip, Glen, high from the beer they had drank all day, drove recklessly fast on the way home. We were terrified and yelled for him to stop. P.G. and Glen laughed while Mama threatened to kick his ass if he didn't slow down.

The area was pretty, with cedar trees, plateaus and beautiful rock formations. We actually enjoyed living there; certainly better than in any town. Jessie and I spent many hours walking, sitting, and just watching clouds form in the beautiful blue New Mexico skies.

I remember one afternoon especially, when we had been lying on our backs on a large sandstone bluff warmed by the sun. "Look at that dark
blue sky pushing its way through the clouds," I said. "Ain't that a beautiful sight?"

"It sure is. I just wish old Sarge was still here to look at it," Jessie said. "I might just go stay with Daddy. Boy I would like to see him" His voice trembled with emotion.

I missed our dad, too, and I felt a pang of worry at the thought of losing my other brother, but for that afternoon I pushed that worry away.
On our way back to the tent we found a beautiful collie dog wandering loose. We guessed that some oil field worker had taken him to the rig and he had just wandered away.

"He is so pretty," Jess said as he stroked him. Obviously Jessie was in love again.

"Let's name him Ring," I said admiring his lovely white collar. A good replacement for Sarge, he started following Jessie everywhere. They shared many adventures together. One turned out to be a near catastrophe: Jessie was standing on the edge of a rock bluff with Ring who was leaping in the air snapping at flies. Ring made a great jump, lost his footing on the sandstone rock, and as Jessie watched in horror, slid off the edge of the bluff.

"Ring," Jessie screamed staring over the edge of the bluff. He could see Ring lying still on a ridge near the bottom. Heart pounding, Jessie worked his way to where Ring lay unconscious. With tears streaming down his face, he carried him back to the top and laid him down. Amazingly enough, Ring finally came to, licked Jessie's face, and followed him back to the tent.

That same summer Jessie turned fourteen. He was far from happy. He grumbled to me that he could not do anything to please P.G. and said Daddy would treat him better. His resentment manifested itself in obstinance bordering on rebellion. One day Jessie failed to chop the wood to cook supper, and Mama had to cut it herself.

"Why didn't you cut that wood like I asked you too?" RG. asked when he came home from work exhausted, greasy, and in no mood for Jessie's excuses.

"Well I didn't get back from hunting rabbits soon enough and besides, I'm not a slave. If you don't want me here I'll just go stay with my real daddy."

"If you can't do what I tell you," RG. said, "That's probably a damned good idea."

By mutual agreement, Jessie went to live with Daddy. The next time we went into Bloomfield for groceries, Jessie caught a bus to Estancia. He would stay with Daddy for the next four years. He cried when he left because he would miss us, and because he had to leave Ring. Phyllis and Reita had tears in their eyes as they waved goodbye to him. I felt a great loss as the bus pulled away, for now both of my brothers were gone.


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